Saturday, July 31, 2010

Literal vs. Figurative, Pt. II

For the idiom just posted below, some English natives might write, "Melissa is literally a ray of sunshine for everyone at the office."

This would be completely incorrect. Literally, Melissa is a human being, not a ray of light. Figuratively, she might be a ray of sunshine, but certainly not literally.

Using "She's a real ray of sunshine" is using a much lighter touch.

In both cases, the culprit is the common use of exaggeration in English. Those who say "a real ray of sunshine" try to use the word "real" as a strengthener; that is, a word to add emphasis to the sentence, like the bold I am using for this text (if you are seeing the text here on the blog, anyway). Rather than, for example, shouting the idiom out, people use certain words for emphasis.

Long ago, someone could say "a virtual ray of sunshine" and that would be strong enough. In popular American culture, people have become so accustomed to exaggeration that they will literally say, "She's literally a ray of sunshine." Nonetheless, this is wrong.

It is never correct to use a word as strong as literally for something that is not correct and true in reality, rather than in a figurative expression. More importantly, you cannot possibly sound well educated and articulate if you abuse the word "literally" for things that are not literal.

If only all native speakers followed this advice.

1 comment: